WITH its prestige in the region at stake, Japan seems set to address more firmly the tragedy of women in Asia who were sent to Japanese military brothels during World War II.
This emotional vestige of the past has dogged Japan ever since a group of elderly Korean women broke a half century of silence in 1991 to tell their horrid tales of being forced to serve as "comfort women," the euphemistic term used by Imperial Japan.
Officials in Tokyo promise a report "soon" on whether they can find proof that the government forcibly recruited an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 comfort women in the 1930s and early 1940s, as many of the surviving women claim and at least one Japanese war veteran, Seiji Yoshida, admits.
Also being considered is a plan for Japan to provide money for the care of former comfort women in South Korea. But any money would be channeled through the South Korean Red Cross to avoid the impression of official compensation. Japan fears a wave of claims from war victims in the many nations that it once ruled.
So far, South Korea remains the focus of Japan's attempt to deal with the issue, since most women who ended up in combat-zone brothels came from the Korean peninsula, colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945.
"Japan is ready to give some money to the Red Cross as strictly a humanitarian gesture," says a South Korean official. "But it won't really resolve the matter. We don't want the money. We want them to recognize the role of the Japanese government in coercing the women."
Japan and South Korea legally settled all war claims in 1965 when they normalized ties, but the emotional impact of the recent testimony by a few comfort women and the almost-weekly protests in Seoul against Japan have created a political problem beyond legalities.
One group of Korean women has filed a lawsuit in a Tokyo court seeking an apology and compensation, but the case could drag on for years. The issue has also been raised in the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, causing concern in Tokyo. "These matters are forced prostitution and that itself is a serious violation of human rights," said Dutch academic Theo van Boven, who has worked for the UN commission.
A new president in South Korea, Kim Young Sam, who took office on Feb. 25 as the first civilian leader in 31 years, provides Japan with an opportunity to make amends and quell the issue. Mr. Kim has close ties to Tokyo and says he wants a "future-oriented" relationship and an "early" Japan-South Korea summit.